(Photo: Citizen-Times photo)
Now that New Orleans has toppled its statue of Robert E. Lee, Asheville should take a hard look at the man we honor in our city’s most prominent public space.
I speak of Zebulon Vance.
You know, Zeb Vance, North Carolina’s Civil War governor, whose name is carved into the granite obelisk rising above Pack Square.
Vance has largely disappeared from public memory, and his obscurity has allowed his monument to rest undisturbed.
It’s time to rattle the foundations.
The Vance Monument is a tribute to a white supremacist, the leader of a political party that destroyed the promise of Reconstruction and imposed segregation upon North Carolina. The monument is a towering insult to African-Americans, an affront to American ideals and an embarrassment to the city of Asheville.
Some background: Born in 1830 near Weaverville, Zebulon Baird Vance studied at the University of North Carolina, briefly practiced law in Asheville, and then served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1858–61. He fought in the Civil War and served two stints as North Carolina’s governor, the first starting in 1862 and the second in 1876. He was a U.S. Senator from 1879 until his death in 1894.
At Vance’s funeral in Asheville, thousands lined up to pay their respects, and they soon raised money to set their feelings in stone. On Dec. 22, 1897, as a band played “Dixie,” the cornerstone of the Vance Monument was laid.
In his time, Vance was North Carolina’s greatest statesman, beloved for his masterful speeches, quick wit, and deft political skills that held the state together during times of crisis.
Therein lies the problem. Vance united North Carolina by destroying the hopes of its black citizens.
Though a reluctant secessionist, once the Civil War started Vance fought doggedly to defeat the Union and preserve slavery. Despite Confederate defeat, he never abandoned the lost cause.
There was a brief, shining moment when Reconstruction promised profound change. Thanks to the federal Reconstruction Acts and the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Republican Party — a coalition of blacks, anti-secession whites native to North Carolina and newly arrived Northern whites — gained control of North Carolina government, ratifying a state constitution that guaranteed universal male suffrage, democratic elections for state and local officials, and public schools for all races. African Americans voted freely and served in political office.
Vance led the Democrats, the opposition party devoted to restoring white rule. Once they regained power, Democrats amended the constitution to outlaw interracial marriage and integrated schools, and gave the state legislature power over local elections — thus preventing majority-black counties from electing their own leaders.
Campaigning for governor in 1876, Vance accused Republicans of plotting to “degrade the good old Anglo-Saxon race beneath the African race.” Though he distanced himself from the Klan, Vance benefited from violent suppression of the black vote, and he drew a bizarre, victim-blaming lesson from that suppression. If blacks are “intimidated from voting or are defrauded in the counting of their votes,” Vance asked, “is not that a strong argument against their supposed capacity for self-government?”
Vance’s contempt for African-Americans undermines nearly all his accomplishments. At a time when anti-Semitism was common, he bravely urged Americans “to judge the Jew as we judge other men — by his merits.” Yet he praised the Jewish people through an invidious comparison to “the African negro, the descendants of barbarian tribes who for 4,000 years have contributed nothing to … civilization.”
Examples of such appalling rhetoric could be multiplied endlessly. “All of his life, he assumed that African-Americans were intellectually and morally inferior to whites,” the historian Gordon McKinney writes in his biography of Vance. “He was an avowed racist who used the racism of other whites for personal advantage and political purposes.”
In a brilliant speech, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked his audience to imagine an African-American girl talking to her parents about Civil War monuments: “Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?”
We should be asking the same questions about the Vance Monument in Asheville, a city where the African-American community continues to suffer the effects of the decades of discrimination that Vance and his party codified in law.
What should be done?
Bringing down the monument has symbolic appeal, but it would be politically difficult and may not be necessary. After all, it is not a statue of a man but a simple spire that could be rededicated to a new cause.
For a start, the city could place, near the monument, a historical marker that gives an unflinching account of Zeb Vance’s life and legacy. Another plaque detailing the city’s African-American heritage — as has been suggested before — could be added as well.
And then I’d propose that the city rename the obelisk.
With the simple addition of two letters, the Vance Monument could become the Advance Monument.
The name would give a nod to The Advance, an African-American newspaper published in the 1890s by Edward Stephens, a founder of YMI and administrator of Asheville’s black public schools.
Like that newspaper, the Advance Monument would be dedicated to the cause of unfinished progress. A century ago Asheville honored a white supremacist, but we reject those values now. And before we can call our society truly equal, we must advance much further.
Mark Essig is a historian and writer living in Asheville.